The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago boasts one of the world's largest carnivals. Dating back to 1783, the pre-Lenten celebration blends French, African and Indian cultures, all leading up to two days of masquerading, also called “playing mas.”
And unlike its South American counterpart in Brazil, anyone can take to the streets in a glitzy, colorful costume, dancing through Port of Spain to the sounds of sweet soca music.
Carnival is big business in Trinidad. Hopeful masqueraders rush to shell out thousands of dollars for a spot in some of the country's most sought-after bands. That doesn't even include other accommodations like tickets to parties and musical competitions leading up to the great parade.
Acacia de Verteuil is coordinator for Y.U.M.A, one of Trinidad's most popular bands. Y.U.M.A's launch for 2016 carnival is a fashion show-like spectacle that culminates the end of band launch season.
“We have always strived to mix our mas in the sense of maintaining some form of tradition in terms of being a storyteller,” she says. “Carnival has always been about telling a story, about portraying something different.”
As popular as Trinidad's carnival has become, it’s that sense of tradition that many say is lost as a consequence.
For some, what was once a community-oriented celebration is now mostly mass produced. Steel drums are often manufactured in Japan. Top musical artists produce the season’s hottest tunes in New York and London. Even costumes are mostly supplied and pre-assembled in China.
Roland St. George, leader of the award-winning band D’Krewe, says now much of what makes carnival distinctly Trinidadian is actually outsourced to other countries.
“The profit margin is better for them to have it done [in China], mass-produced there and bring it across here without giving us the money,” he says.
D’Krewe is a year-round operation, supplying costume prototypes for carnivals around the world. Inside the headquarters, called a mas camp, workers are assembling by hand some of the most detailed costumes for not only Trinidad’s carnival, but Miami, New York and Toronto as well.
St. George has played the king of his band for decades and sticks to what’s referred to as "old mas" -- the traditional form of masquerade.
Carnival’s growing popularity worldwide is something St. George says makes Trinidad’s “new mas," -- or modern carnival -- a watered-down, commercial product.
“There’s no creativity in it. They put together from a copy of what we have done before," he says. "How much skill can you put into a panty and a wire bra?"
"Carnival didn’t come from skimpiness, or nice female decorative bodies," he adds. "It came from decorative costumes, the street parade, the glamor and glory of saying ‘look me, look what I’ve created.' It takes away from that glamor of excitement of costuming.”
Tribe, Trinidad's largest band, has pioneered the transition into “new mas,” garnering just as much criticism as it does praise. But inside a showroom in Woodbrook, they're premiering a new, smaller band called The Lost Tribe. It pays homage to old mas while still keeping up with modern trends.
“It’s taking that frame that we know and something that is nostalgic, and transferring it into a shape and form to something that is applicable to our contemporary generation,” says lead designer Val Maharaj.
Maharaj says it’s unfair to pinpoint carnival’s commercialization solely on costume design. He points out that as technology made the world more connected, all aspects of Trinidad’s carnival culture evolved.
Mostly importantly, the music became faster. Once primarily calypso, carnival became more soca based and incorporated more pop and techno influences. The experience of carnival became just as much about being free to party as it was the famous costume competition.
“So it would be naïve to think then that the costumes would have remained the same because the costumes then started to be designed for a specific niche market and a specific generation in the first place,” Maharaj says.
But older generations say this new mas is too much like Brazil’s carnival, made up of mostly jeweled bikinis and feathered headpieces – no longer an artistic expression that tells the story of Trinidad’s rich and unique history.
Not true, says Trinidadian designer Anya Ayoung-Chee, best known globally as the season-nine winner of Project Runway. She says old mas is still there, it’s just that new mas is more popular now.
Some of Trinidad’s most celebrated designers are Ayoung-Chee’s mentors. And she’s used that influence as the co-creative director of The Lost Tribe.
“I feel very privileged to have one foot in the camp of the contemporary mas and what it’s becoming, and having one foot in the genius of what mas once was," she says.
Ayoung-Chee designed costumes for both the contemporary masquerade of Tribe and the traditional mas of The Lost Tribe. And that’s the point she says: there’s room in the carnival business to satisfy everyone.
“I do think it’s possible to maintain the essence of carnival, not lose what it was entirely intended for, but letting it become something else. I really do think it takes, like everything else, living in the moment and going with the flow,” she says.
By now, most of the country’s biggest bands are completely sold out, but smaller ones where costumes are often more traditional and locally produced give last-minute revelers an opportunity to take part in the bacchanal.
“At the end of the day, we are selling Trinidad and Tobago and we need to make our products something that is sellable,” says Maharaj.
Despite longing for the days of old mas, Roland St. George agrees.
"Essentially, you cannot tell another man how to make his money," he says.
Come February, the streets of Port of Spain will be filled with thousands of locals, foreign-nationals, and tourists taking part in Trinidad’s biggest pastime, both new and old. Ayoung-Chee says it all serves the purpose of propelling Trinidad's culture to the world.
“I believe in the vehicle of carnival as the most effective way to tell the story of what Trinidad is about to the rest of the world,” says Ayoung-Chee.
And whether that costume is a reflection of the current era of beads, bikinis and feathers or traditional characters like sailors, dragons and kings, it’s an experience often called the “greatest show on earth,” one that has masqueraders saving up for next year long before they’ve even put on this year’s costume.